Prime-time piffle: 25 years of Channel 4

Twenty-five years ago, Channel 4 was born with a remit to promote the arts. The man who was there at the start, Michael Kustow, asks where it all went wrong

When Channel 4 started in 1982, mainstream British television had packaged the arts tidily. Broadcasters spoke of "arts coverage". To me, it seemed like art blanketed by the eiderdown of television. Art tamed.

Channel 4 changed the idiom, made space for new voices, did what its government remit demanded, going where other channels did not venture, innovating in form and content. The arts on the Channel were no exception. They had a licence to "make it new", in Ezra Pound's words, and by and large showed the difference between innovation and mere novelty.

Today, television is suffering a national nervous breakdown. Not only has trust in the medium been eroded, but the industry has lost its self-confidence. Channel 4 has also gone astray. But it has a legacy that could point to a better way. The nub of that legacy is in its cultural programmes and practice. At 25 years old, the Channel now operates in a much tougher environment. Is it continuing to offer a real alternative?

Series about "tomorrow's stars" such as Operatunity, Musicality and Ballet Hoo! have made it into prime time, at the cost of adopting the formats of reality television and tabloid entertainment. Indeed, they're not really art programmes at all, but contests or pseudo-democratic participatory game shows. The Turner Prize specials are also televised competitions, giving sponsors good exposure, and viewers a chance to eavesdrop on celebrities, usually plastered enough to drop a newsworthy clanger. Meanwhile, many of Channel 4's adventurous arts programmes, such as Dominic Muldowney's made-for-television War Oratorio, are scheduled late at night or on the minority channel More4.

Of course, there have been some truly creative shows in the past few years, extending the definition of what art television can be: original operas by Thomas Adès and Jonathan Dove, Howard Goodall's advocacy of modern composers, sparky surveys of painting by Matt Collings and Waldemar Januszczak, Lloyd Newson's The Cost of Living, a physical theatre piece featuring a disabled dancer. Penny Woolcock's film of John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer was an explosive encounter of music and political murder; her feature film Exodus, transplanting the Bible story to an asylum-seekers' camp, has just played at the Venice Film Festival. But awards and festivals are not the meat and potatoes of a television channel.

When I joined, I was greeted by Jeremy Isaacs with the words, "Are you sure you're being avant-garde enough, Michael?" Which television supremo would say such a thing today? In the Channel's early years, we regularly put the arts into the 7pm news, not to mock avant-garde silliness but to treat them as part of our reality just as much as politicians or floods. Now they are ghettoised into often marginal arts slots. We sought, not television about the arts, but art television – television inflected by art and artists, programmes as full-hearted, sharp-minded and kitsch-averse as a good poem, painting or performance.

We ventured into the battleground of ideas and the debate about the place of culture itself in our society. No sign of that now on today's Channel 4, and not much on any television channel; reflection is left to radio.

Now, after 25 years in which television has been multi-channelised, Murdoch-ised and loudly marketised, former commissioning editors have been asked which Channel 4 arts programmes they consider most "iconic". Memory is fickle, but from my own output I recall these successes – never huge in ratings terms, but we saw our audience as a mosaic of minorities.

Tony Harrison's V, an angry, elegaic poem about the desecration of his parents' tomb by hooligans, the miners' strike, and the skinhead inside us all, put into images by Richard Eyre.

Pina Bausch's 1980, a two-hour dance theatre piece by one of Europe's outstanding theatre and dance-makers, a surreal succession of scenes and images of love and death, put out in primetime. A puzzled viewer rang in to say he didn't understand what was happening but he hadn't been able to drag himself away from it for the past hour.

Peter Hall and Tony Harrison's adaptation of The Oresteia, Aeschylus' epic trilogy, directed by Peter Hall and perfomed by a company in masks.

The Mahabharata, Peter Brook's re-creation on film of his six-hour stage version of the great Indian saga of gods and humans, love, war, family and destiny.

Monuments and Maidens, Marina Warner and Gina Newson's exploration of the mythology of feminity, from Joan of Arc to statues of naked women symbolising virtue.

The National Theatre of Brent's Mighty Moments of World History, in which the deflationary wit of Patrick Barlow's tiny troupe assayed peaks of world history and culture.

Michael Nyman's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, an original opera based on Oliver Sacks' neurological case study, written and directed by Chris Rawlence, which drew forth some of Nyman's most affecting music.

Many of us, not just the arts editor, commissioned arts programmes for the fledgling Channel 4. There were dazzling music portraits, from Philip Glass to Phil Spector; Alan Fountain and Rod Stoneman's weekly The Eleventh Hour, enlarging our idea of culture from all points of the national and global compass; Farrukh Dhondy's explorations of the culture and gaze of ethnic minorities in The Bandung File; and Naomi Sargant's enterprising educational series. Most went out in prime time.

Those were halcyon days, but there are some signs of improvement today. The Channel has junked Celebrity Big Brother and other tired formats, "to make room for the new", says its head of programmes. Would that some of the space and cash thus released were used to restore the arts to a key position in the Channel's vision of things. A television channel, and its arts and cultural programmes, exist to lead tastes and elevate appetites, not simply to reflect the reduced ones of a society of shoppers.



Channel 4 Arts at 25, the Barbican, London EC1 (0845 120 7530; www.barbican.org.uk/film), tomorrow to 12 September

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